Session Spotlight: Man Made Natural: Insights into the Authenticity of Materials by Grace Jeffers

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Truth to materials is a principle of modern design that holds that the innate qualities of natural materials should influence the projects created from them, and the doctrine assumes natural materials are superior to man-made materials. But are natural materials always the best choice?

The answer really comes down to what story you want to tell with your design concept and how the materials you select fit into that story. In terms of cost, synthetic materials often are less expensive. But, cost aside, one could make an argument for the use of man-made materials on principle alone in some cases. The following three case studies illustrate this point.

Vegan Leather
PVC coated textiles, otherwise known as Naugahyde, pleather and vinyl, often are viewed as low-cost, but less desirable, alternatives to leather. But today some designers intentionally use the material, promoting it as vegan leather or cruelty free leather. On one hand it is synthetic, but on the other hand the material can be used in lieu of genuine cowhide. What is more important to your clients?

Wood Grain Laminate
Ebony, zebrawood, afromosia and certain species of mahogany, cedar and teak are some of the most endangered tree species on the planet. Many laminate manufacturers have created patterns that are dead ringers for the real thing, but they use plantation-grown eucalyptus as a raw material for the paper layers. (Did you know that laminate is 83 percent paper?) By choosing laminate, designers can avoid accidentally specifying endangered species and contributing to the demand that fuels illegal logging.

Eldorado Stone
It is illegal to remove lava rock from nature in the state of Hawaii. This is because lava rock is protected as an endangered environment and also because many Hawaiian people believe there is a life force that resides in all things. So, to take things from their natural home is to disturb the spirits within. (For anyone familiar with that famous Brady Bunch episode, you know that many people return pilfered rocks to Hawaii with an apology to Pele, goddess of the volcano.) Eldorado Stone has solved this problem by creating its Hawaiian Collection, four distinctive lava rock simulations that each feature a unique color, texture and shape.

Today, more than ever, the overall design story is as important if not more important than the individual materials themselves. What story do you want to tell with materials?

Man Made Natural: Insights into the Authenticity of Materials takes place Monday, April 18, 2016 from 10:45am – 11:45am. 

Grace Jeffers is a design historian, materials specialist and writer focusing on the 20th century, whose approach blends art history, social history, material science and the practice of design. As a curator, Jeffers worked to restore and preserve the Ralph and Sunny Wilson House in Temple, Texas, for which she received the Merit Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, successfully arguing that the use of modern materials in architecture warrants recognition. As a designer, she has created patterns and designs for paper, flooring, laminate and other decorative surfacing materials for more than 10 major manufacturers. Jeffers contributed to the catalog of the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition “Skin: Surface and Substance in Contemporary Design,” and has served as a contributor and design editor to architectural trade magazines. She is a graduate of the Bard Graduate Center for the Decorative Arts.